Last year the Yemeni writer and intellectual Ali al-Muqri published his new novel with one of the most important publishers in the Arab world, the Lebanese Dar al-Saqi. Al-Muqri is known in the Arab world for his elegant style (he is a poet as well); for his research on the past of the Arabs; and for his engagement in favor of minorities in his country. His previous novel, Black Taste, Black Smell, on the condition of a group marginalized in Yemen because of their dark skin, was very well received by the Arab public. It seems, though, that with his last novel, al-Muqri did something wrong, at least as far as its title and its subject are concerned.
The Handsome Jew tells the story of Fatima, the educated daughter of a mufti, who falls in love with a Jew. Set in seventeenth century Yemen, the novel addresses the issue of tolerance towards other religions and social classes – a hundred pages in which the author said he just wanted "to reveal a memory in the form of an intimate love story that goes beyond dislike and class hatred between two religions." No ideology, no political hints; but this was not sufficient to avoid strong criticism from all sides. You only need to have a quick look at reviews of the novel and interviews with its author in Arab newspapers, satellite channels and websites and you will immediately realize that "The Handsome Jew" has never been regarded as a literary work.
Ali al-Muqri, for instance, in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily al-Awan, was asked: "Why did you chose to write a novel whose main character is a Jew and why did you choose "The Handsome Jew as a title?", and: "Is the aim of your novel to 'enlighten' the image of the Jew at a time when Jews kill Palestinians in occupied territories?", and: "Are you trying with your novel to draw a distinction between the Arab Jew and the Jew who has destroyed the world to turn Palestine into his country?" Even the interview on al-Jazeera's website contains questions like, "Your novel tells about the love between a Muslim girl and a Jew; don't you fear a political lecture over it in the shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict?"
These questions clearly demonstrate that there is no way to write about the Jews in the Arab world without being boycotted, or at least without problems. In another review of al-Muqri's novel you can read: "[…] the beginning of the book is acceptable, where Muslims are described as tolerant while Jews are not but then the novel becomes unbearable, mainly because Jews seem strangely ready to get on good terms with others. This is something that in contemporary history they are not able to do. In the novel, Muslims oppress Jews; they steal lands and belongings so that the Jews are compelled to fly to Jerusalem. Some passages of the novel seem to show that al-Muqri went for a fanciful justification for the Israeli occupation of Palestine; he even dared to look for it in the Koran."
Anyone who knows Ali al-Muqri, even only through his writings, cannot have any doubt about the fact that he is an honest intellectual and a true free- thinker, as he has clearly shown in his essay, "Liquor and Wine in Islam" (2007), in which he suggested, after an analytical research into Islamic culture, that alcohol might not be prohibited in Islam -- incurring the rage of Muslim clerics.
As far as The Handsome Jew is concerned, al-Muqri retains his intellectual honesty. The novel follows a deep study of Jews in Yemen, which, as the author says, "has lost many of its Jews because of its supremacism. The Jews used to be part of the country's identity." The novel was apparently a way for him to recover a lost memory, a lost identity: the novel, he wrote, was "a deep excavation into human suffering."
Besides this, he appears to be to be one of the few Arab intellectuals free of any ideology. When asked about the chance of a translation of the novel into Hebrew, al-Mugri, unlike many of his colleagues, wonders "why many of the Arab authors refuse to translate their works into Hebrew," and goes even farther when he reminds them that Averroes "who was charged with being an infidel and whose books in Arabic were burned. It was his books translated into Arabic that survived." This is the reason he does not understand why Arabic literature should not be translated, as long it passes through "safe channels." A safe channel could be the small Israeli publisher, al-Andalus; it would be so valuable if al-Muqri's dream to be translated into Hebrew will become true.
It would be valuable as well if The Handsome Jew, about to be translated into Italian by Piemme, and into French by Editions Lévy, could also be translated into English, so that one of the most important and decent voices of the Arab world could reach a bigger audience. It would be such a gift if such a deep and lucid look into a world that is now lost -- that of the Yemeni Jewish community -- were available to as many people as possible so that we could help a true intellectual who is still living in a country where a simple and beautiful work of fiction -- and free thoughts -- can threaten your life.